Wednesday, December 28, 2005

From India: A perspective on the good news from Dover

One of the remarkable things about India is the way many religious groups, as well as other philosophical traditions, have coexisted in relative peace for decades. Of course, there are those who are not content to allow that, and so in recent years we have seen a rise in militancy among both Hindus and Muslims in India. In the context of the worldwide rise of Islamic extremism, India is playing with fire. There could be few greater tragedies than to see this country, a model of tolerance and diversity, and home to a billion people, torn apart by religious strife. Yet there are leaders here who persist in fanning the flames. Fortunately, in the most recent election, the Hindu nationalists were set back, though that may be temporary. The result was a surprise, and still has not been explained by the pundits, and so it is hard to know what the reverse means, or how lasting it may be. Nevertheless, large numbers of Indians seem to have woken up to the fact that religious sabre-rattling will not solve their problems or create opportunities.

For an American, seeing this play out is a poignant reminder of the risks we face at home. There has recently been reason to breathe a sigh of relief, as rationality finally won a round in Dover. There has been a great deal of coverage of this case, so these comments will be brief. Put simply: we are facing a worldwide war on reason, waged by ideologues of all stripes. The convenient explanation, perhaps the right one, is that the rapidity of change in the world has driven many to seek the security to be found in religious dogma. Whatever the reason, now that we have a slight respite, it is time to be honest about what we are confronting in the U.S.

Those who have compared the Christian Right with the Taliban have been shouted down, accused of intolerance, or worse. But the comparison is perfectly appropriate, and the dangers are not dissimilar. The absurd argument is made that one has to choose between supporting Christian extremism or supporting Islamofascism. It does not seem to occur to some that one can, and should, oppose both, as they are cut from the same cloth.

The Christian Right and the forces of Islamofascism, as well as the Hindu fundamentalists, want essentially the same things; it is only their means that differ. They long for a society in which prayer has replaced knowledge, women are subservient, holding other beliefs is itself considered intolerant, and the natural human impulse to question is dead. Their dream of a return to a pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment existence makes groups like Earth First look moderate by comparison. We cannot fight the values of Islamofascism without recognising and confronting those values in our own society.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Dispatch from India

4:30 PM, Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi: It has been a marathon trip, but exhaustion does not prevent us from eagerly observing all we can. The initial impression is disappointing: The airport is tired, decrepit, even filthy. The customs folks sit at wooden desks, the signs looking hand-lettered, the paint peeling. The baggage area is chaotic; there is a sad-looking duty-free shop, with a sign saying it is an enterprise of the Government of India. I wonder why the duty-free operation is adjacent to the baggage-return area, without any apparent barriers separating the two, but there is no one to ask.

The trip into town brings back childhood memories. The incessant honking of the little three-wheeled taxis, which appear to navigate the chaotic traffic using a kind of sonar. The jumble of vehicles of different types and speeds, all sharing the same lanes. The makeshift stalls visible in the dusk, all along the roads, and the swarms of pedestrians. A man single-handedly pulling a large cart piled high with some kind of produce, as buses, trucks, cars and scooters swerve to avoid him. I wonder how far he has come, on foot, pulling a load more suited to a team of oxen, to try to sell his wares in the big city.

We have come to spend the holiday with our extended family here. We stay at the house of cousins who are away. They are privileged people, especially by local standards. Their house is large, nicely laid out, with most of the modern amenities, clean water being the most important. Just outside their gates is a different world. Down the street is a row of shanties, half-hidden behind crumbling walls that have not been repaired in 50 years. Dung fires smolder, and laundry hangs from lines strung throughout a jumble of walls and poles. A street repair crew shovels gravel by hand; two young men hand-crank a tar mixer. The work site is not marked; scooters, pedestrians, and a couple of cows somehow make their way around the workers. It is hard to discern what they are accomplishing--the road looks as though it could benefit from far more repair than this crew can possibly effect.

We take a trip into the center of the city to explore, perhaps shop. There have been changes in 20 years--large concrete overpasses here and there, a few modern buildings, some of them on a grand scale. But mostly, it looks the same. The streets crooked, the signs as well; the fruit vendors parked randomly along major roads; the endless streams of people in their stained tunics and flimsy sandals. Many of the stands and stalls are nothing more than a cloth spread on the ground, covered with wares for sale: fabrics, clothing, household implements, food. Some of the stands are attended by three or four people--far more than needed to carry on their business. A lot of the people sit for hours, nursing chai in their little clay cups. There is probably little else for them to do.

The old arcade at Connaught Place, the central market, a holdover from British times, is soot-stained, the columns coated with tobacco and pan spittle, everything finished in a layer of dust. In the center, the old park is gone, replaced by a massive construction site. They are building the terminus of a modern subway system, which they hope will relieve the unbearable traffic jams. The crowds are dense, but here, many of the people are unmistakeably middle-class, judging by their clothes and demeanor. They do not have the grim, beaten look of the poor. It is Christmas Eve, here in this non-Christian land, and someone must be doing a brisk business selling red Santa caps, because they are everywhere.

Delhi doesn’t have a single large slum. The shanties and hovels infiltrate all over the city, crammed into the corners between larger neighborhoods. The people build right on the dirt, using recycled board, brick and metal. It is unlikely any of them hold title to the land--they are squatters, one step above homelessness. Bony women, in their bright saris and shifts, pick their way gingerly through the filth and clutter and pools of muddy water, or worse. Here and there, children play cricket on improvised pitches, but as many children wander through the traffic, begging. They mingle with the maimed and the lepers, some of whom bleed from lesions that cover their limbs. This city is booming and modernizing, but over all there is the miasma of deep and intractable suffering.

Back at the house: we find ourselves subject to rotating blackouts. The phones work only fitfully. We are taken care of by domestic staff, who are dedicated and hard working. But it begs the question: how is it that this is the best work they can find? They are lucky compared with many in their villages or in the tenements from which they commute. Those villages remain mired in the 16th century. How can that be?

There has been much breathless coverage in the West, about India’s economic boom, and its rivalry with China. Americans are afraid of all the jobs they are losing to India. Indians are proud of the new industries which are springing up, taking those jobs. We see reports of gleaming new industrial parks in places like Bangalore. But the reports do not talk about the dysfunctional infrastructure surrounding those compounds, nor about the need for the companies to build their own power supplies because they, too, are subject to rolling blackouts. Most important, the reports rarely touch on the most important question: Is the growth and modernization going to touch the lives of the desperate poor in India? If not, how is that acceptable? What needs to happen for these people to have a future?

Next: Outside the city, signs of hope...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Quick question....

A number of people reading this have been sending me comments off line, directly to my email. I appreciate the comments, but wonder why you don't leave them here on the site (just click the "comments" button below). Part of the purpose of this blog was to provide a forum for the kinds of discussion some of us have had over the years via email. I wanted to keep the lively discussions going, while reducing the volume of email and also providing an archive of peoples' thoughts. A number of you have had a lot to say over the years via email, and it seems to me the rest of the group would be interested too. Is this the wrong place to do that?

Responses? Explanations? Ideas?

Thanks all...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A little common sense with that?

It's kind of funny to see far-right Christian organizations attack Walmart, for replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays". Don't they just deserve each other? Yes, the religious fanatics have worked themselves up into a righteous sense of persecution, no question about it. That sense of persecution has become a dangerous force, one that threatens the greatness of this country.

So why do progressives insist on feeding that sense of persecution? Is it really necessary to ban the 3rd-grade Christmas play? Is it really necessary to ban the Bible club from using schools after hours like any other interest group? It is one thing to insist that teachers teach science in science class. Any reader of this journal knows that I give no quarter on that issue. However, it is a whole different thing to ban cultural traditions that are, all in all, a positive influence on young lives as well as old.

Ok, my experiences may not be typical. I went to a big public school, in a grim industrial town with many ethnic groups and boatloads of tribal hostility and suspicion. The Candlelight Service, which was our version of the Christmas pageant, was one of the few times that kids of all ethnicities and religions participated together in something, with a feeling bordering on genuine love. I was neither Christian nor Jew. I often had heated debates with kids whom I thought were letting faith trump reason. That did not stop me from participating every year, with great joy, in the Candlelight Service.

No, it did not make me a believer. But I loved the message of peace and fellowship. I loved that so many of us, who were walled off most of the time in our little cliques (or, if we were geeks, no clique at all) could get together each winter to do something that did not engender posturing, threats, or one-upmanship, but instead fostered camaraderie and kindness. Most of all, I loved the music. Our music director was smart, and ahead of his time: every year we performed a few songs from other religious traditions, mostly Jewish (because there were a lot of Jews in our town, and in the choir and orchestra). All of it was gorgeous, and I was in awe that this bunch of scruffy kids could make something so wonderful together.

Never in all that time did I feel anyone was shoving anything down my throat. This is a largely Christian country, and it seemed natural that their big celebration would be the most visible ritual in our community. It was also the one time that I felt most Christians came closest to feeling and behaving as Christ would have wanted them to. To me that was a good thing.

Those of us who advocate rationality have a tough war ahead of us. But we must choose the right battles. Science education is a good one. Religious hazing in our military is another. Defining our nation's mission is another. Giving public funds to groups that proselytize is another. And there are more.

But banning Christmas from our public schools, or being offended because people wish us Merry Christmas, strikes me as pointless, if not downright sad.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Back from China: A riff on freedom of information

Now that I've been back for 48 hours, I can share the following observation:

Soon after publishing some recent observations on China, and in particular the challenges it faces, there were unmistakeable signs that my email was being monitored. For two days after the last dispatch, I was cut off. After that, it was really slow, and a number of emails never reached their intended recipients. I was only able to check my servers at home by using aliases and alternative login protocols. A sobering reminder that China is ruled by an authoritiarian and sometimes paranoid regime.

As offensive and frustrating as it was to have this happen, I also found myself wondering how they can waste such enormous resources on monitoring people as harmless as I am. Yes, a lot of the surveillance is automated, but in my case the pattern also betrayed considerable human involvment. Some poor slob was actually taking the time to go through my emails and decide what to let through, and when. What will happen when human labour is no longer dirt cheap? Of course, such surveillance will become more and more expensive. Will it become so expensive that the government has to cut back, or be more selective? Or will technology fill the gap?

There are U.S. technology firms that have eagerly bid on projects to help the Chinese government develop tools to monitor their population. If we take human rights in China seriously, we must institute rules that strictly prohibit U.S. corporations from abetting the government's dictatorial impulses. The current U.S. administration has appropriately blocked sale of critical defense-related technologies to China, but has not done anything to curb the sale or development of tools the Chinese government can use to oppress its own people. It is a remarkable and disturbing omission, especially given our rhetoric about human rights.